Special elections produce no net change in state House political composition; four incumbents lose General Assembly primary contests.
By Chris Comisac
HARRISBURG (May 16) – While most people were paying attention to the storylines from statewide and federal primary contests, the state General Assembly produced plenty of interesting primary outcomes, with a few incumbent lawmakers given their walking papers by their party’s voters.
First up, the special election to fill three currently vacant seats in the state House of Representatives.
Republicans had hoped they could go three-for-three, holding two GOP seats (the 68th and 178th legislative districts) and flipping a Democrat seat (the 48th District).
It appears as though they’ll have to be happy with breaking even – but they did it by flipping that Democratic seat and losing one of the GOP-held seats.
Prior to Tuesday, GOP sources had acknowledged the seat most at-risk is the 178th, which was vacated by Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, to become the executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
Based on unofficial election results, it appears Democrat Helen Tai, a business consultant and chair of the Solebury Township supervisors, is going to squeak out a victory – 51 percent to 49 percent – over and Republican Wendi Thomas, a business woman and former president of the Council Rock School Board. As of 12:15 a.m., the gap between the two was 257 votes out of 11,751 cast. The two will have a return match in the November general election.
The GOP was able to capture the 48th District seat, which was left vacant after Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington, was appointed to the Washington County trial court.
Republican Timothy O’Neal, a human resources director for a Pittsburgh construction company and an U.S. Army veteran, got nearly 55 percent of the vote (5,441 votes) compared to Democrat Washington attorney Clark Mitchell Jr.’s nearly 44 percent of the vote (4,338 votes). Libertarian Demosthenes Agoris, a member of Houston borough council, got 158 votes, or 1.59 percent of the total vote. Looking ahead to the November general election, Mitchell, having defeated Democratic primary opponent Joe Zupancic on Tuesday, will get another shot at O’Neal.
And in the 68th District, vacated earlier this year by state Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga, for a job with the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Republican Clint Owlett easily dispatched Democrat Carrie Heath, with the two also winning their respective primaries to set up a rematch in the November general election.
Tuesday was not a good day for a few incumbents.
On the Democratic side, bad election days were had by the Costa cousins – Dom and Paul, both from Allegheny County – and Rep. Emilio Vazquez, D-Philadelphia, in primaries that normally determine the winners of the general election.
On the Republican side, GOP voters gave a pink slip to Allegheny County state Sen. Randy Vulakovich – the only state Senate incumbent to face a primary challenge on Tuesday.
Dom, of the 21st Legislative District, and Paul, of the 34th, both handily lost to challengers who are members of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Dom was defeated 64 percent (5,905 votes) to 36 percent (3,920) by Sara Innamorato, who does marketing and outreach for environmental and other progressive causes. Paul lost by an even bigger margin, 68 percent (6,892 votes) to 32 percent (3,274 votes), to Summer Lee, who does political organizing.
Rep. Dom Costa did mount a campaign for GOP write-in votes that could potentially give him another shot at retaining the seat, but he would have needed at least 300 such votes to get on the GOP ballot in November. According to Allegheny County election data, only 291 GOP write-in votes were cast, and at this juncture, it’s unknown if all were cast for Costa. In the 34th District, only 129 GOP write-in votes were cast.
And in Philadelphia’s 197th District – which was the scene of a crazy special election last year that featured a candidate being tossed off the ballot and election fraud charges being filed against four poll workers (three of which have since entered guilty pleas) – Democratic Rep. Emilio Vazquez came in third in a three-way primary contest that included the candidate that was removed from the ballot in last year’s special election.
However, Frederick Ramirez did not win the primary either; instead Danilo Burgos, who had the endorsements of the 197th District’s Democratic ward leaders, won with 37.2 percent (1,292 votes) of the overall vote. Ramirez got 34.3 percent (1,193 votes), while Vazquez received 28.5 percent (990 votes).
As for the state Senate, many Republicans were quietly concerned about the challenge mounted against incumbent Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, in the 38th Senatorial District by Ross Township Commissioner Jeremy Shaffer – those concerns turned out to be well-founded.
Shaffer made Vulakovich a state Senate short-timer by getting nearly 59 percent of the vote (10,430 votes), compared to Vulakovich’s 41 percent (7,343 votes).
Those same Republicans that were concerned about the Vulakovich primary have also expressed worry the 38th District could be in play for Democrats in November, since the district narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.
That will be decided by a general election matchup between Shaffer and Democrat Lindsey Williams, the communications director for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, who defeated Stephanie Walsh in the Democratic primary.
Eighteen other incumbents in the state House faced primary opposition on Tuesday – including Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia (whose government corruption case has been delayed for years) and Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks (who was the subject of a 2015 sexual harassment complaint that prompted a $248,000 settlement to be paid) – but none of them lost.
GOP Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York, was thought by some to be vulnerable – facing two GOP challengers in the 92nd Legislative District – but she easily defeated Joshua Hershey and Curtis Werner, garnering more than 62 percent of the total vote. Keefer will go up against Democrat Shanna Danielson, a former public school music teacher, in November.
Additionally, with several open seats in the offing, there were some fairly large fields of primary contenders for a few House and Senate districts.
The open-seat 82nd District GOP primary (due to the decision by Rep. Adam Harris, R-Juniata, to not seek re-election) featured nine candidates seeking the party’s nomination, with Johnathan Dean Hershey the top vote-getter at nearly 35 percent (2,602 votes) of the total vote; the next closest candidate received 15.2 percent of the vote. Hershey will face Democrat Kimberly Hart in November.
Five Democrats were vying for the open seat of the 112th District, with Kyle Mullins topping the quintet of candidates, garnering 43.3 percent (4,237 votes) of the vote. Mullins will face Ernest Lemoncelli for the seat from which Rep. Kevin Haggerty, D-Lackawanna, is retiring. Lemoncelli lost to Haggerty in 2016.
Things weren’t nearly as crazy in the state Senate, and beyond the Vulakovich result – which featured contest primaries for both the Republicans and Democrats – the only other seat to have contested GOP and Democratic primaries was the 28th Senatorial District, which will be vacated by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York (who will challenge Gov. Tom Wolf in November), at the end of the year.
The 28th District seat hasn’t been held by a Democrat since 1994, and state Rep. Kristin Hill, R-York, hopes to continue the GOP’s streak. Hill defeated Julie Wheeler, with 65.4 percent (14,238 votes) of the total vote. Looking to put the district back in the Democrats’ column is Judith McCormick Higgins, a former adjunct instructor at Penn State York and a 17-year member of the Eastern York School Board of Directors, who defeated West York Mayor Shawn Mauck with 57.7 percent (5,601 votes) of the vote.
Further questions may be directed to Jack Phillips, RCPA Director of Government Affairs.